Four tips on how to write a historical play that still feels contemporary

Reflecting on her experience of writing ‘Dandelion‘, which is set in 1988 and centres around the impact of the homophobic law Section 28, guest writer Jennifer Richards discusses writing a play for a modern audience that isn’t about the modern at all. 

Writing a play that’s not set in today’s world feels risky; with the idea of “newness” often favoured in theatre, with new writing theatres tending to ask for plays about the modern world. This suggests that historical plays (new ones, not the classics!) may not have a place in today’s theatre scene. But just because a play isn’t set in a contemporary time period, doesn’t mean it can’t have a contemporary feel.

My latest play Dandelion is set in 1988 and explores the impact of Section 28, a piece of legislation introduced by Thatcher that banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by schools and local councils.

You may be thinking that 1988 isn’t exactly Elizabethan times, but history is so important to this play, with the entire one hour and 20 minutes centred around the fallout of this legislation on the two queer female protagonists. As I was writing Dandelionlearning to make a play that so steeped in history feel contemporary was definitely a learning curve, but here’s the tips I picked up:

  1. Ask yourself: why is this story still relevant today?

When learning historical texts at schools, whether that was a Shakespeare play or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I always felt slightly distant from the story.

I was 14 and knew nothing of forbidden love or scary scientific inventions; and it’s not that I’ve now spent all the years since I’ve left school having my own Romeo and Juliet story set in a mad-scientist’s lab (though, great idea for a play), but I’ve seen loads of wonderful new takes on these plays and stories, which has helped me discover my connection to them.

Also, finding myself in unequal relationships where there wasn’t the correct balance of power, I’ve learnt the universality of the themes in those stories, which often do deal with power and love.

Shakespeare’s plays are still staged so frequently as they have something important to say to a modern society. In writing a historical play, it’s about looking where that universal connection still lies, that point within your play that exists outside of its time period.

With my play Dandelion, its’ ideas around identity and learning to be comfortable with yourself are not thoughts that only existed in 1988. And though the intricacies of any historical play are likely contained to that time period, it’s the wider themes that should make your story enduringly relevant.

  1. Plan an event exploring the history

Exploring that relevancy I mentioned above doesn’t have to just be contained to the script or stage. With Dandelion, we’re hoping to run a panel event in the New Year centred around the impact of Section 28 and why it’s important to remember queer history.

This has further helped us explore that historical significance of a piece of work in a modern setting. Putting on events like this, or perhaps running workshops that offer the chance for people to learn more about the history of your play and why you chose to explore that history, will further foster this connection between the historical and the modern.

  1. Don’t shy away from the time period

Making a historical play feel contemporary doesn’t mean trying to minimise the history as much as possible for fear that that part of the play will seem dull. If you want the world you’re creating in your play to really resonate with your audience, it has to feel genuine.

Using the correct language from the time period, having fun with the costumes and the music all helps cement the time period. Building a world that does seem different from today also encourages audience members to examine this difference, and look at how we’ve changed as a society, or perhaps how we’ve not changed.

  1. Understand the historical significance through the character

When I first started writing Dandelion, because it centres so specifically around a piece of legislation, I didn’t know how to introduce Section 28 to the play without it sounding like I just really needed to funnel in the description of what Section 28 was so the rest of the play could work.

And it would have been these stilted historical references that would’ve prevented the play from resonating with a modern audience. I needed to learn to tell this history through the characters rather than name-dropping legislation every other word.

Therefore, at the beginning of the play, we play the sound clip of lesbian activists crashing the BBC News to protest Section 28 (an event that really happened) to make it clear from the start that though this play is about a time of historical significance, it centres on the people of that time.

Plays are typically about having a strong voice and characters that people connect with and it’s important to remember that doesn’t change when it comes to historical plays.

Rehearsal shot for Dandelion, taken by Rosie Featherstone

Dandelion has been my first time writing a play not set in the modern day, and it’s been great learning how to combine the historical and the modern – and decking myself out in all the 80s costumes hasn’t been too bad either!

Wait – you’re telling me those costumes are only for the actors?

 

Jennifer Richards’s show Dandelion is running at the King’s Head in Islington on December 16th and 17th December.       

 

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